Intoxicating Natural Beauty, with Real Live Toxics
Scammell, William, The Independent (London, England)
IT'S MY 20th anniversary next year: the marriage of a southerner - or "Southron", as Basil Bunting called us - to that debatable land and rocky outcrop called Cumbria, which gives allegiance to England but which probably has as much in common with the Orkneys, or with Crete, as with the Home Counties.
Chance fetched me up here in 1975, a lectureship with Newcastle University's Extramural Department, spreading sweetness and light among those impulse buyers who turn to literature for a stirring night out.
I thought I'd be here two or three years, max. But a couple of decades on I seem to be rooted to the spot, watching the sun set over the Solway rather than the Solent and New Forest of my childhood, adopting both the economical lingo ("Cat wants out"; "Missed it be a foot and a field") and the cheerful stoicism of the locals, for many of whom London is about as real as Kuala Lumpur.
What makes Cumbria tick? And why am I still here? The brief answer to the first question is: tourism in central "Lakeland" and the washing of the world's dirty nuclear linen at Sellafield, plus a smattering of industry and a lot of small subsidised farms. The longer answer has to do with time out of mind, the extended family, and a local patriotism fiercer than Islamic fundamentalism.
This last is no hyperbole. If you want to know what happens to all those old bred-in-the-bone beliefs that have gone missing in Islington, and in the southern shires since Suez, try any pub north of Preston or Scotch Corner. From one angle it freezes your blood, from another it cheers you up no end. These are the "folk" whose allegiances are tribal first and last.
You could play at Peter Mayle among them, or cast a Cold Comfort Farm, or write a Blue Book anatomising their love of a "crack" and sticky toffee pudding, but such exercises would barely scratch the surface of their lives. They have roots and branches the way Job had doubts and boils, the way modern poets have understatement and prepositions. Offcomers are tolerated but seen as careerists, time-sharers and amateur anthropologists in search of a hobby, chattering about what's really real.
There are multiple ironies in the way the place earns its living. It's meant to be a rugged Wordsworthian idyll, free of the "sordid taint of industry" (as Wm dubbed it), a uniquely uplifting environment where the world is not allowed to be too much with us. In reality the dream is ceaselessly merchandised, the hills echo to the sound of cash registers. Hotels, B&Bs, hostels, adventure trails, hang-gliding, para-gliding, canoeing, pony-trekking, mountain- biking, rock-climbing, sailing, fishing, diving, camping, poeticising, moto-crossing, water-skiing, back- packing - there's a deal for your every desire, at a price.
Everyone cashes in on the cash crop, from the Bonningtons and Brashers and Braggs to, I'm ashamed to say, me. I once edited a book called The New Lake Poets. It began as a joke but the publisher liked it - good for sales - and it stuck. The Wordsworth Trust processes tens of thousands of visitors a year at Grasmere, and so does the Beatrix Potter bonanza. If either of them were to come back they'd drop dead with disgust.
And then there's British Nuclear Fuels, far and away the largest employer in the county, which puts wages in the hands of thousands and radioactive waste in the Irish Sea; and maybe or maybe not contributes to the incidence of leukaemia among local schoolchildren. There's a nice moral issue for you. Survival at a price, or a Friend of the Earth on permanent dole? …